Yoani Sanchez Talks About Cuba’s 'Changes'

Thursday, June 16, 2016
Interview from Germany's DPA news agency (via The Havana Times):

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez on Monday decried the fact that Cuban reality has barely changed nearly two years after the thawing of relations with the United States. She warned that the process of change would be delayed for “the entire lifespan of those who control Cuba.”

During her participation in the Global Media Forum gathering in the German city of Bonn, Sanchez held a telephone interview with DPA. During this, she analyzed the current situation in her country and insisted that at present the new openness in Cuba is more a headline than a reality.

How do you see the current situation in Cuba?  Do you believe that the thaw in relations with the United States favors the Cuban opposition?

Yoani Sanchez: All the expectations that have been raised since December 17, 2014, are still facing a lot of obstacles. We expected at the time that Cuba, and above all the Cubans’ lives, would have improved a lot by now (…) Nevertheless, right now there are still a lot of expectations pending for the lives of Cubans. (...) It’s not only a question of how the opposition is doing, or how the opposition is seen – without a doubt it continues to suffer repression- but also how the Cuban population sees it.

They look on the process with hope, although a bit of disappointment for the slow pace in which it’s moving.

So it’s more expectation than reality?

YS:  Exactly. I’ve repeated a phrase several times: it’s more headlines than realities. Myself, I’d like to live in the Cuba of those headlines (…) I believe that December 17 has also created a media avalanche feeding the belief that Cuba is changing; reality though is a little more obstinate.

And how much time do you think is needed to make it a reality?

YS: Unfortunately, that’s in the hands of the people that now govern the country. It’s a generation very obsessed with not allowing a transition towards democracy, towards a market economy, towards freedom and towards respect for opposition parties. It will take the entire lifespan of those who control Cuba.

Are you afraid that in Cuba a kind of “Vietnam model” will be established with a market economy but a one-party regime? Or do you believe that the economic and social opening can lead to a political change?

YS: Clearly, Raul Castro is a bit obsessed with the Vietnam model and believes that he can carry Cuba in that direction. But even in terms of taking Cuba in that direction, they’re going very slowly. (…) Of course that fear exists, and also a fear of following the Russian model with a totalitarian figure in power, and economic freedom within a system very controlled by political dictates.

And what do you think is the model to follow?

YS: Well, I hope that it’s neither of those two. That would scare me a lot (…) I hope that our idiosyncrasies as well as the experience that we’ve had in these years keep the government from turning its steps towards those paths. And there you have the great importance of the opposition: to denounce any intent towards that direction.

How do you view Raul Castro’s administration in the last years, especially with regard to the thaw in relations with the US?

YS: He’s an opportunist. On the one hand, he offers his hand to the government in the White House and displays himself in public as a David reconciling with Goliath; on the other, he maintains control, vigilance and repression for those who are different within his own country. It seems totally ironic to me, and even contradictory, that they should be capable of reconciling with the great enemy to the north and not be able to reconcile with those who differ with them within the island.

What role does Fidel Castro still play in Cuban politics?  Do you think that there’s a “Raul-ism” and a “Fidel-ism” in the upper echelons of Cuban politics, and what might be the discrepancy?

YS: I think that they play very astutely the roles of good policeman and bad policeman to keep the media and the population entertained. I believe that Fidel Castro is right now the big brake on any Cuban transition.

And regarding relations with the United States, for example?

YS: It’s very difficult to know about this, because Fidel Castro makes very sporadic appearances and expresses himself via written reflections that are ever more meandering and chaotic; he’s been very ambiguous on the topic of relations with the United States. I think he tries to play the part of the old 20th century anti-imperialist, but Cuban diplomacy clearly contradicts him because there are ever more photos of smiling politicians on one side and the other.

Do you believe that those relations will take yet another turn if Republican candidate Donald Trump is chosen in November?

YS: It’s difficult to foresee. Up until now, the Republican candidate has said that he would explore the topic of maintaining the thaw and rapprochement. In his case, the reasoning could be for economic reasons.

But it’s possible that everything would delay more?

YS: That could be, but right now the decision doesn’t lie so much with the White House. My impression is that the White House has been giving in, putting substantial benefits on the negotiating table (…) and that nevertheless, Havana has given very little.  Now the ball is in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. I believe that more than what Trump does, the most important thing is what Raul Castro is going to do.

Chanel fashion show, Rolling Stones concert… What do you think of the new flood of companies, tourists and foreign personalities to a Cuba that seems to be “in vogue”?

YS: The problem with things in fashion is that later they’re out (…) We need to move that notion of trendiness beyond frivolity and photos, and into a demand for a Cuba that is no longer a sepia-colored postcard that pleases tourists. We’re not a Vintage country although we may have ancient facades and cars from the mid-twentieth century. There’s also a need to promote a modern Cuba, a connected Cuba, a Cuba of young people who want to feel part of the 21st century, and not to see us as a theme park of the past.

What do you think about the continual flight of performers, like the recent defection of ballerinas from the Cuban National Ballet?

YS: The flight of the artists and of thousands of Cubans (…) is due to the lack of hope within the country, which is the worst failure of Raul Castro’s government, and also of the negotiations between the US and Cuba. Almost two years after those relations began, Cubans are still fleeing because they believe that they’ll be able to live better in any other country than in their own. This is also an indicator of how little everything has advanced.

Your digital site “14yMedio” has been around for two years.  What’s the balance up until now?

YS: Well, we’ve survived, which seems to be the most heroic thing I’ve done all my life, following two years of government censorship (…) I think that’s something to congratulate ourselves about, but we want more. We want to reach everyone so that Cubans could use the internet without being censored for it. We want there to be a press law. There’s a lot left to do.

Is independent journalism possible today in Cuba?

Sánchez: It’s possible, it’s possible and “14yMedio” demonstrates that. We’re a daily that not only focuses its sights on improving the quality of the journalism we do, but in addition we’re financially autonomous. We don’t receive a cent from the Cuban government nor from any government in the world. You can produce free, autonomous, independent journalism of quality from the island.

Tweets of the Week: Dalai Lama, Richard Gere and 'Cuba Decide'


Renowned Cuban Writer Arrested (Again)

From 14ymedio (via Translating Cuba):

Cuban Writer Angel Santiesteban Arrested

The writer Angel Santiesteban was arrested on Monday afternoon shortly after he left his home. The blogger is in a cell at the police station located at the corner of Zapata and C in the Plaza municipality, according to the information from the police offered by telephone.

Recently, Santiesteban received the Reinaldo Arenas Narrative Prize, awarded by the Club of Independent Writers of Cuba and he is now in what he called “a creative phase” that consumes all his time.

According to telephone calls made by family and friends to police authorities, Santiesteban was arrested because “they had tracked him” from the Isle of Youth.

The winner, also, of the Casa de las Américas Prize (2006) was on parole awaiting the outcome of an appeal for review of his case by the Ministry of Justice; he recently served several years in prison for “violation of domicile and injuries.” In the trial in that case, which was denounced as a process full of irregularities, he had been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

Since the appeal was filed for review of his case, Santiesteban has been arrested on several occasions, including for participating in the Sunday marches of the Ladies in White.

Stonegate Bank is Breaking the Law

Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Yesterday, Florida-based Stonegate Bank announced that it will be issuing a new credit card for use in Cuba.

Only hotels and retail stores owned by Cuba's military allow the use of credit cards. These hotels are primarily located in properties confiscated from Americans, while the retail stores market brands (e.g. rums, cigars) that were similarly stolen.

As such, Stonegate's extension of credit for transactions in these properties are illegal.

Section 103 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act has a strict prohibition on extending any such financing in Cuba. It reads:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no loan, credit, or other financing may be extended knowingly by a United States national, a permanent resident alien, or a United States agency to any person for the purpose of financing transactions involving any confiscated property the claim to which is owned by a United States national as of the date of the enactment of this Act, except for financing by the United States national owning such claim for a transaction permitted under United States law."

There are no exceptions to this language, including for authorized American travelers.

Thus, the Treasury Department must either require Stonegate Bank to set up a system to certify its transactions do not involve confiscated properties -- or take appropriate enforcement action.

Florida state regulators should also take action to ensure Stonegate Bank does not break the law by authorizing such transactions.

Even if such transactions have the political blessing of The White House -- despite its Constitutional responsibility -- the statute of limitations does not run out with the Obama Administration.

Moreover, the American victims of these stolen properties in Cuba may also consider a private right of action.

Finally, these transactions are also against U.S. policy, as codified in law.

The Castro regime's company in charge of processing every single one of these transactions is called CIMEX.

CIMEX stands for Cuban Export-Import Corporation, one of the Cuban military's largest commercial entities, whose operations range from banking to retail. It was also nefariously linked to narcotic trafficking activities in the 1990s.

CIMEX's yearly revenues are now over $1.5 billion and rising -- thanks to Obama's new policy.

The head of CIMEX is Colonel Hector Oroza Busutin, a Raul Castro confidant. CIMEX falls within the greater GAESA military conglomerate, which is headed by Raul's son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas.

Thus, once again, the beneficiaries of Obama's new policy are not the Cuban people, or the "self-employed" entrepreneurs, who the President purports to support.

The beneficiaries are the Castro family and its military conglomerates.

Obama vs. Cuba's Dissidents

Monday, June 13, 2016
By Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post:

Obama vs. the dissidents

There are two ways dictatorships can end, says Óscar Elías Biscet. “One is a revolution of the superstructure, where the top changes itself. The other is a change from the bottom up,” like those that introduced democracy to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and, most recently, Tunisia. Cuba’s leading dissidents are sure about their choice. “We want to build a a civic, nonviolent movement that will overturn this regime and bring democracy to Cuba,” says Biscet.

President Obama has bet on the other side. He has spent the past several years cultivating the regime of Raúl Castro, on the theory that normal diplomatic relations and increased commerce will lead, eventually, to greater freedom for Cubans. In announcing the opening, he went so far as to say that neither Cubans nor Americans should wish for the “collapse” of the Castro regime.

Last Wednesday, as Biscet arrived in Washington for the first time in his life, U.S. envoys from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department were meeting in Havana with Obama’s chosen interlocutors — regime security officials, including those from the notorious Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic repression. Biscet, who got to know the Interior Ministry well during the dozen years he spent as a political prisoner, was meanwhile explaining why Obama’s strategy is more likely to entrench than transform Cuban Communism.

“This was a great move for Castro,” said the 54-year-old doctor, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2007, while he was in prison. The rapprochement with the United States, he said, provided Cuba with a vital economic prop at a time when it was losing the support of imploding Venezuela. Meanwhile, “when people see Obama greeting Castro in the way that he did, it gives a totalitarian regime global legitimacy.”

Obama’s policy has had the effect of stranding the most pro-American, pro-democracy people in Cuba — the activists who have spent their lives fighting the system, at enormous personal cost. While the regime collects U.S. cooperation and dollars, repression of the opposition has sharply increased; according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, there were 6,075 political arrests during the first five months of this year, the highest number in decades.

This month two of the most important dissident leaders, Biscet and José Daniel Ferrer, were allowed to leave the island for the first time. Why did the Castros abruptly grant them this permission to travel? “They are feeling strong,” said Biscet. “They think that at this point we won’t get that much attention.” Both nevertheless came to Washington to make their case. After all, congressional Republicans are still listening; they just passed legislation that would restrict the blossoming U.S.-Cuba military contacts.

Biscet and Ferrer have a lot in common: They were both arrested in the early 2000s, during a sweeping crackdown on the opposition, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. When a Vatican-brokered amnesty of political prisoners began in 2010, they both remained behind bars, because they refused to go into exile. Finally released in 2011, they both launched grass-roots political movements. Biscet heads the Havana-based Emilia Project, which he says has collected 3,000 signatures on a manifesto calling for democracy.

Ferrer, 45 and based in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, heads the even larger Cuban Patriotic Union, which runs its own social services and distributes DVDs of the news and information banned in Cuba’s public squares.

They differ, however, on Obama’s initiative. Biscet is implacably opposed, though he still calls the United States “a beacon of liberty.” Ferrer avoids condemnation, which he calls “political suicide,” given the broad support for the opening among ordinary Cubans who desperately hope for change.

Ferrer nevertheless has a similar view of Obama’s initiative. “They run the risk that the regime will be the one that comes out the winner,” he said during a conversation a week before Biscet’s visit. “They are making it possible that any change in Cuba will not end in democracy, but in something like the Russia of Vladi­mir Putin.”

So what do the dissidents want? They don’t ask for another radical change of U.S. policy; only for measures that would help their fledgling political movements. Foremost is information — more U.S. broadcasting, more Internet access, more of everything that can provide Cubans uncensored news. “The control the regime has over the media is the greatest obstacle for people to wake up and channel their rebellion,” said Ferrer. Said Biscet: “Broadcasting TV Martí from an airplane was very expensive, but people watched it.”

That will be news to those in Washington who ridiculed U.S. broadcasting to Cuba and cheered Obama’s cultivation of the Castros. Their bet was that Cuba’s Communists would be better partners than its pro-democracy dissidents. So far, they’ve been wrong.

Quote of the Week: Tourism Fuels Cuba's Repressive Machinery

Tourism only fuels the [Castro] regime's repressive machinery.
-- Sirley Avila Leon, former Cuban National Assembly delegate-turned-dissident, who had her limb severed in a machete attack as a result, during Q&A, Victims of Communism Foundation event, Washington, D.C., 6/9/16


Signed: El Sexto

By Jay Nordlinger in The National Review:

Signed: El Sexto

A rebel, artist, and sometime political prisoner from Cuba 

ARTICLE 39 of the Cuban constitution states that “artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution.” Danilo Maldonado Machado, a.k.a. “El Sexto,” does not obey. He is a Cuban street artist and human-rights activist. He has been in and out of prison many times. In 2014, he took two pigs and painted names on them: “Fidel” and “Raúl.” He was referring to his country’s brother dictators, of course. And he had been inspired by Animal Farm, Orwell’s novella of 1945. Obviously, this act earned him a prison sentence.

In 2015, he received the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent — in absentia, for he was in prison. The prize is named after the late Czech playwright and democracy hero, and is given at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. Maldonado is here right now: at Freedom Forum 2016. He is able to thank the organization in person.

Maldonado is the very image of the street-artist rebel: tall (6´3?) and thin. Funky haircut. Tattoos, jewelry, the works. He was born on April 1, 1983. April Fools’ Day is a good birthday for a jokester. In an interview with me, he notes that he was born just shy of the Orwell year: 1984. He also notes that, according to the Chinese zodiac, he was born in the Year of the Pig. “What else?” I say. Maldonado grins readily, as he is prone to do.

He grew up in Camagüey Province. Neither of his parents was especially political. Like all Cubans, Danilo was propagandized as soon as he reached school age. He and his classmates chanted such slogans as “We will be like Che [Guevara].” When they learned to read, they did not see such sentences as “See Spot run.” They saw “Fidel is in the plaza” or “Fidel is happy.” And, of course, TV, radio, and newspapers conveyed hardly anything but propaganda.

Danilo liked to draw, and something strange happened when he was nine. He drew a picture of Fidel Castro in his army fatigues, but with a monkey head. When his mother saw it, she was horrified. She took it from him, threw it away, and admonished him never to draw anything like that again. The child was taken aback. His mother had always liked his drawings before. Why was she so afraid of this one simple drawing? “That started a little revolution in my mind,” he says.

When he was 18, he was conscripted into the military, like everyone else. On the base, he saw things he had never seen before: goods, supplies — stuff. He stole some of it. For this, he was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served three. When he got out, he had an urge to satirize: to satirize every government campaign, to puncture the atmosphere of fear and propaganda.

That’s how he got his nickname, “El Sexto.” The government was hailing the “Cuban Five,” a quintet of spies in the United States. The government was constantly celebrating these men as heroes. So Maldonado, tongue in cheek, started calling himself “El Sexto”: The Sixth.

He also spray-painted graffiti in the capital city, Havana, signing them with his nickname. In one instance, he painted “Peace. Love. Without fear.” This caused a buzz. Fear is the ruling emotion in Cuba, as in police states everywhere. On a bus, Maldonado overheard people talking about him. “Who is ‘El Sexto’?” He also overheard police talking about him. They were vowing to get these guys, who were waging this graffiti campaign. They thought that “El Sexto” was more than one person.

For years, he has had support from ordinary people, usually stated in whispers. He has support even among policemen. But most of the agents do their job: which includes harassing Maldonado, keeping him out of public spaces, and confiscating his property.

Once, Maldonado wore a T-shirt with the image of Laura Pollán on it. She was the leader of the Ladies in White, the human-rights group in Cuba. She died in 2011 under suspicious circumstances. The police ripped the shirt off Maldonado. They also took away his art materials. So, as he puts it, he used the one medium left to him: his body. He acquired a tattoo of Pollán. And of Oswaldo Payá, another Cuban democracy leader, killed by the regime in 2012.

Maldonado, like the people painted on his body, is one of those irrepressible dissidents.

In December 2014, President Obama announced his opening to Cuba. If international media were going to be paying more attention to Cuba, Maldonado thought it was a good time for an imaginative, daring performance. His inspiration was Animal Farm: which depicts a place where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Ever since it was written, people trapped in totalitarian societies have been amazed by Animal Farm — by its accuracy, above all.

Two years ago, also at the Oslo Freedom Forum, I interviewed a young defector from North Korea, Yeonmi Park. Even when she got to South Korea, she did not feel quite free, in her mind. But then she got a hold of Animal Farm. She read it all night, and cried. The book seemed to be about her homeland, specifically. “Animal Farm set me free from brainwashing,” she told me.

In Cuba, Maldonado took his two pigs — females, as it happened — and gave them those famous names, Fidel and Raúl. His plan was to take them to Central Park in Havana and put on a show: Rebelión en la granja, i.e., “Rebellion on the Farm,” which is how Orwell’s novella is known in Spanish. Maldonado knew he would be arrested and imprisoned. His aim was to show the world that freedom of expression in Cuba was denied.

He never made it to the park. They arrested him on the way. Maldonado was charged with disorderly conduct, but he was never given a trial. He was sentenced to three years — “Three years for two pigs,” as his supporters put it. The prison was Valle Grande, where he was confined with common criminals (as dissidents are in Cuba). Amnesty International declared Maldonado a prisoner of conscience.

There came a time when the prisoners did not have water. And that led Maldonado to stage a hunger strike. He also had this thought: “It was my activism that got me in here, and it will be activism that gets me out.” He considered his hunger strike a kind of performance art. He went without food for 24 days. Was he prepared to die? Yes, he says, although he did not think it would come to that: He figured he was too well known for the regime to let die. The regime would not want the publicity.

Maldonado’s hunger strike garnered international attention and led to international pressure on Castro & Co. They relented, releasing Maldonado on October 20, 2015. His jailers had some parting words for him: “Stay out of trouble.”

He refuses. He wants to “stretch the limits of what is possible,” he says. Why? Why him? What drives him to it, what compels him to put his neck on the line? Why him and not someone else? He answers the way dissidents usually do when I ask them this question: “I don’t know.” In the past, Maldonado tried to live a normal life, but found he could not. He must strike little artistic blows against the dictatorship, or try to.

His goal is to “break the pattern of brainwashing in people,” he says. He wants to counter the government’s incessant propaganda. He says he thinks like a publicist: What can I do to catch people’s attention and wake them up a little? He says that Communism is like slavery: “People are told to be grateful for what little they’re given by their masters. They’re also told that life would be wretched for them elsewhere, or under a different system.”

“Why do they let you travel?” I ask. “I don’t know,” says Maldonado. Then, grinning, “Maybe they think I’ll never come back.” Maldonado is more trouble to them at home than abroad. Whatever the dangers in Cuba, he has no desire to go into exile, because “I want to be part of change in Cuba. I see America and the American dream, and I want to implant that spirit in Cuba: to have a Cuban dream, which is freedom.”

I ask him a standard question: whether there’s something he wishes people — especially outsiders, foreigners — could know. He has an immediate answer: “Che Guevara was a murderer. He wasn’t a hero. Also, Raúl and Fidel are murderers, not legitimate authorities, not legitimate heads of state. They are there by force, not by the will of the people.”

En route to the Oslo Freedom Forum, Maldonado flew from Havana to Paris. Sitting next to him was a man wearing a Che shirt: a foreigner, probably a Frenchman. Maldonado wanted to explain to the man about Guevara, but they did not have a language in common. Maldonado says he can excuse Cubans who wear Che shirts: They have been propagandized all their lives. He has a much harder time excusing men and women from free societies.

Before we part, I tell El Sexto that I consider him something of a miracle. When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., the cool kids like him — the artists and rebels, with funky hair, tattoos, jewelry, etc. — were all on the left. They wore Che shirts. They were pro-Castro. And here the coolest kid on the block is anti-Castro, pro-democracy, anti-Che. “I’m so glad you exist,” I tell him. He grins.

Obama's Cuba Trip Was Just a Family Vacation

Sunday, June 12, 2016
Last Friday, Ann Louise Bardach wrote another piece for Politico, "Backlash in Cuba", which seeks to further the narrative that Fidel Castro is the "hardliner," while Raul is a "reformer" (despite the facts that prove otherwise).

This is the same silly narrative the Obama Administration and its lobbyists use to further their policy in Iran.

Except in both the Cuban and Iranian regimes, there are no "moderates" -- there are only "hardliners" and "very hardliners."

The most ironic part of Bardach's narrative is how Fidel's current backlash against Obama is now considered a "success" of the new policy, while Fidel's previous backlashes were labeled a "failure" of U.S. policy.

But the most concerning assertion was the reason why Obama chose to ignore the "red-line" he'd set that he wouldn't travel to Cuba until there was a noticeable improvement in human rights.

In a December 2015 interview, President Obama stated that he would only travel to Cuba “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans.”

Three months later, Obama crossed this "red-line" despite human rights worsening on the island.

So why did Obama cross this "red-line? Surely, due to some geo-strategic rationale, right?

Wrong.

"[A]ccording to sources at both State and the Vice President’s office, [the reason] was that the president and first lady very much wanted a family trip, and the March 20-23 dates coincided with spring break at Sidwell Friends School for daughters Malia, who’s been studying Spanish, and Sasha," writes Bardach.

Once again, Obama's legacy (and taxpayer-funded family vacations) are more important that lives.

Dr. Oscar Biscet: A Profile in Courage From Cuba

From The Washington Examiner:

Dr. Oscar Biscet: A profile in courage from Cuba

When Oscar Elias Biscet was a young physician in Havana, he noticed something peculiar. Cuba's healthcare system was held up as one of the finest in the world, but the communist country also had the highest abortion rate in the Americas. What's more, babies were regularly being aborted just moments before birth and even after birth.

When Biscet exposed this grisly practice, he was stripped of his medical license (his wife, Elsa Morejon, lost her nursing job). A year later, he displayed the Cuban flag upside down and received a three-year prison sentence for public disorder and dishonoring national symbols. A few days after his release, Biscet was re-arrested, this time for meeting with other dissidents, convicted of treason and given a 25-year term, including significant time in solitary confinement.

Biscet served more than eight years of that sentence, and more than 11 years total in Cuba's fetid prisons. During that time, he became a symbol of Cubans' fight for freedom and democracy.

Biscet recently left his home country for the first time. On a visit to Washington, D.C., this week, he met with members of the Washington Examiner's editorial board. In a wide-ranging interview, Biscet called President Obama's outreach to the Cuban government, which includes re-opening embassies in both nations and loosening of travel and trade restrictions to Cuba, a "strategic error."

Cuban President Raul Castro has enacted a few reforms: Citizens are allowed to open certain small businesses and have better access to the Internet and cell phones. But Biscet says those reforms are cosmetic and that "the people are far removed from the benefits [of the reforms]." He also stressed that, as in China, another communist dictatorship, economic reforms don't necessarily lead to political reforms.

They certainly haven't in Cuba. The rights of free speech, assembly and a free press still ellude the Cuban people. Political repression is still rampant. Biscet was beaten, arrested and detained just last month. By some counts the number of political prisoners in Cuba is down to a couple dozen. But, Biscet says, "this number misrepresents the real number, because the government doesn't consider most prisoners of conscience to be political prisoners — they detain them as if they were common criminals."

Biscet also believes that Obama violated the Helms-Burton Act by changing the American policy toward Cuba. That law requires that a democratically elected government be instituted in Cuba before relations are renewed.

So what will it take for Cuba to change? "We don't think that because one person dies, there will be change," Biscet says. "[The Castros] created a system that whoever takes over will have enormous power."

Is there anything Obama or whoever succeeds him can do to help bring about change? First, he or she must demand religious freedom for the Cuban people, Biscet says. Cuba is no longer an officially atheist state that executes priests and burns down churches. The Catholic Church is no longer outlawed. Instead, the regime limits its citizens' religious activities to church attendance but little more.

Biscet knows that the Cuban government would like to be rid of him and thus, by allowing him to travel abroad, have given him a "puente de plata," an old proverb that means that when an enemy leaves, you should build him a bridge of silver so that he never comes back.

But Biscet is already anxious to go back. When he was last freed from prison, in 2011, his release was delayed because he refused to be exiled from the country he loves and feels called to liberate. And so he will return soon. "I have a moral and ethical commitment to return. I can't leave my people enslaved."

Cuba Reassures U.S. Fugitives They Will Not be Extradited

From AP:

US Fugitives Say Cuba Has Reassured Them They Are Safe

Two American fugitives who fled to Cuba after they were accused of killing police officers said Friday that Cuban officials have assured them that detente with the United States will not lead to their extradition.

The United States and Cuba held a second round of law-enforcement talks last month dedicated partly to resolving the fate of scores of fugitives after more than a half century with almost no cooperation. The talks are part of a series of U.S.-Cuba negotiations aimed at normalizing relations after the two countries declared an official end to Cold War hostilities on Dec. 17, 2014.

The discussions have raised U.S. law enforcement hopes that fugitives living in Cuba for decades will return to the United States to face trial or serve prison under plea deals.

Charles Hill, a black militant wanted in the 1971 slaying of a New Mexico state policeman, told The Associated Press that Cuban government contacts had recently reassured him he was at no risk of extradition. Nehanda Abiodun, another black militant wanted in a 1981 armored car robbery that left two police offers and a security guard dead, told the AP she had recently received a similar promise.

Cuba's head of U.S. affairs told the AP shortly after the declaration of detente that Cuba was entitled to grant asylum to U.S. fugitives, a sign that people the country once saw as fellow revolutionary fighters will remain safe. The most prominent is Assata Shakur, who is on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists. She broke out of a prison where she was serving a conviction for murdering a New Jersey state trooper. She was regularly spotted in Havana after fleeing to Cuba but has not been seen here in public in recent years.

Hill said he had contacted his Cuban government handlers about three weeks ago after seeing reports that progress was being made in negotiations that could lead to his extradition.

"My people assured me that no, that's not going to take place," Hill said. "I said what's the status and they said there's no problem.